Sometime around 19 AD: Some wicked priests of Isis (… allegedly)

Add comment October 28th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

October 28 marked the start on the Roman calendar of the Isia, a dayslong festival in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who enjoyed a wide following in the Roman Empire. (There’s a temple of Isis in the ruins of Pompeii.)

In recognition of the Isia, we’re unearthing an extremely dubious but suitably execution-related slander of the Isis cult by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus — who writes that at some unspecified date around 19 AD, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius in Rome, a freewoman named Ide and some priests from the cult of Isis were crucified for their role in a wacky conspiracy.

It is known from several ancient historians that followers of both Isis and Yahweh were banished from Rome at about this time, but the specific immediate causes are unclear. Both were “foreign” (and still more, eastern) religions, so might have come in for a bit of expedient demagoguery; the emperor Augustus, only five years dead at that point, had been down on Isis-worship in general thanks in part to his rival Cleopatra, who associated herself with the goddess.

Suetonius says that Tiberius “abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia.” Cassius Dio attributes the Jews’ punishment to their successful proselytizing; such a pattern also intermittently worried future emperors with respect to Isis, and could be consistent with the Senate’s decree that those who renounced their cult(s) could stay.

Josephus alone offers scandalous specific triggers for these expulsions in his twenty-volume Antiquities of the Jews, which covers the history of the Jewish people from Adam and Eve right up to the First Jewish-Roman War.*

There’s a different backstory for each community’s expulsion, according to Josephus — very much at pains to distinguish cases we today, and Josephus’s contemporaries, might naturally take to be connected. Both stories have a novelistic feel of collective punishment for particular crimes, but it’s noticeable that while the Jews’ fate is mildly attributed to a couple of individual criminals (already outcast by the Jews) defrauding a Roman convert who wanted to donate to the temple in Jerusalem, the Egyptian rite gets fabulously shown up as systematically corrupt and a menace to the honor of good Roman matrons.** Josephus is mining here an existing Roman stereotype of Isis-worship as a libertine cult, but he wrote Antiquities in about 93-94 CE, a time when Isis had waxed in the favor of the emperor Domitian as well as his predecessor Vespasian.

Second-century Roman statue of Isis, which can be seen in Rome’s Capitoline Museums

Per Josephus, Paulina, wife of Saturninus, was a wealthy married woman “of a beautiful countenance” and “great modesty,” and a devoted follower of Isis. Decius Mundus, a prominent Roman aristocrat, fell in love — or more like in lust — with her, and tried to seduce her. She rejected him. He offered her presents; she refused them. Finally he offered the staggering sum of 200,000 Attic drachmae for, as Josephus tactfully puts it, “one night’s lodging.” Paulina was outraged by his suggestion.

Despondent, Decius Mundus went home and declared his intent to starve himself to death. A freed slave in his household, a woman named Ide who was “skillful in all sorts of mischief,” couldn’t stand to watch him waste away like this and took pity on him. She could get Paulina to sleep with him, she promised, and she’d do it for the bargain rate of 50,000 drachmae, 75% off.

Knowing that Paulina could not be bought at any price, and also knowing of her devotion to the cult of Isis, Ide resorted to trickery: she went to two corrupt Isis priests and promised to split the 50,000 drachmae with them if they would help deceive the lady. They agreed, rejoicing at the prospect of being 25,000 drachmae richer.

The elder of the two priests went to Paulina with a stunning revelation: the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis had noticed her piety and fallen in love with her, and desired to spend a jackal-headed night with her.

Paulina, who in another era would probably have bought the Brooklyn Bridge and some oceanfront property in Arizona, was delighted by the news. She passed the message on to her husband, asking for permission to “sup and lie” with the God, and Saturninus, “full satisfied with the chastity of his wife,” agreed to share her.

So she want to the temple and had dinner with Anubis (who remained invisible and silent during the meal), then the priest escorted her to the bedroom, put out the lights and shut her in.

Whereupon Decius Mundus emerged from his hiding place and made sweet love to Paulina all night long in the dark, slipping away at dawn.

Whether he wore the jackal’s mask has not been recorded.

Paulina went home in a cloud of post-coital bliss, enraptured by her encounter with the god. She told her husband all about it, and all her friends, who weren’t sure whether to believe her. None of them challenged her, though, such was her reputation as a modest and religious woman.

Decius Mundus let her spread the story around for three days, then came to her and told her the truth, and laughed in her face. She may have rejected him while he was Mundus, he added maliciously, but she had sure liked him when she’d thought he was Anubis!

Furious and humiliated, Paulina tore her own clothes in hysterics when she realized what she’d done. She demanded Saturninus go complain to Tiberius about how she’d been treated, and her embarrassed husband complied.

Tiberius was not one of Rome’s nicer emperors, but he took ample action to avenge Paulina’s dishonor: he razed the temple of Isis to the ground, threw her statue into the river, and suppressed the cult. Lastly, Tiberius ordered that Ide and the Isis priests involved in the conspiracy be crucified.

But Decius Mundus? He got off lightly, merely being banished from Rome. Tiberius decided there were mitigating circumstances, namely that “what crime he had committed was done out of the passion of love.”

* Josephus himself was a rebel Galilean commander in this war; he was captured by the Roman general Vespasian when Josephus weaseled out of a group suicide pact as the Siege of Yodfat ended in a bloody rout. Taken as prisoner to his opposite number, Josephus boldly hailed Vespasian as future emperor. Vespasian did indeed achieve the purple, and pensioned Josephus as a house historian (and Roman citizen) under his own protection.

** See Horst Moehring, “The Persecution of the Jews and the Adherents of the Isis Cult at Rome A.D. 19,” Novum Testamentum, Dec. 1959.

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Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

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41 B.C.E.: Arsinoe IV, Cleopatra’s sister

9 comments December 6th, 2007 Headsman

On an unknown date late in 41 B.C.E., Cleopatra’s younger sister and rival Arsinoe was put to death in Asia Minor as the famous queen cemented her fatal alliance with Mark Antony.

Like Cleopatra herself, Arsinoe lived her short life in the internecine maelstrom of Ptolemaic politics under the sway of a Roman Empire itself immersed in civil strife. Violent death was something of an occupational hazard.

Nevertheless, had some flash of prescient irony visited her when Antony’s legionaries unsheathed their blades, she might well have wondered at the small happenstances of fate that left her a nigh-forgotten footnote in her sister’s story, rather than the other way around.

Three siblings had grasped at the Egyptian throne during the Alexandrian War, and whether it was charm or cold calculation won Caesar’s backing for Cleopatra, Arsinoe and her brother Ptolemy XIII still pressed the Roman garrison of Alexandria with a vastly superior force in a battle that was said to have set the Library of Alexandria aflame.

Timely Roman reinforcements decided the matter, and Arsinoe was marched in chains at Caesar’s sumptuous quadruple Triumph of 46 B.C.E. — though she was spared the execution that typically concluded such an ignominy and instead packed off to a temple on the coast of modern-day Turkey.*

In Margaret George’s historical novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, the danger of maintaining an enemy who has styled herself Queen is neatly summarized in a conversation between Caesar and Cleopatra set after the Triumph:

“I have spared Arsinoe.” [said Caesar]

My [Cleopatra’s] first feeling was a rush of relief. My second was worry. Arsinoe the proud would not retire quietly.

“Where is she to go?”

“She has requested sanctuary at the great Temple of Diana in Ephesus,” he said. “And I will grant it, if you agree.”

Ephesus! Too close to Egypt! Better send her to Britain! Yet … I would gamble, and be merciful. Perhaps I was not enough of a Ptolemy after all. Arsinoe would not have granted it.

“Yes, I will allow it.”

That very perception of her potential danger hung over Arsinoe like the sword of Damocles.

The sword fell — figuratively and literally — five years later after Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony at Tarsus in the autumn of 41. Her terms for Egypt’s alliance supposedly included elimination of this lingering rival — though if Arsinoe had made common cause with Caesar’s Republican assassins, Antony may well have had his own reasons to dispatch the young woman.

Arsinoe’s death helped seal a pact that was itself destined for a bloody end. Distracted by his foreign paramour, Antony steadily lost political ground to his adversary Octavian. In another decade’s time, open war broke out again.

The Egyptian fleet would gather at Ephesus, not far from Arsinoe’s final resting place, bound for the catastrophic Battle of Actium whose outcome added Cleopatra’s and Antony’s blood to the soil from which sprung the long reign of Octavian — soon to be styled Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome.

* A Temple of Artemis — either in Miletus (as Appian has it), or the wonder of the world in Ephesus (as Josephus has it). She met her death at the temple — whichever it was — dragged to its steps and put to the sword. Ephesus seems to be the more generally accepted locale, and an octagonal tomb there has been speculatively identified as Arsinoe’s.

Part of the Themed Set: The Fall of the Roman Republic.

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